Sunday, August 19, 2007

Middle Ground Meat?

Greetings, omnivores.

Today I'm going to talk a little about animal welfare, and how we might improve it without getting angry at anyone.

Lately some animal rights protesters have been harassing someone close to me (I'm not going to go into details), and it started me thinking about ways in which animal rights activists might improve animal welfare most effectively. I think there are two main inefficiencies with current animal rights activity: extremism and lack of perspective.

Problem 1: Animal Rights Activists Tend to be Extremists

"You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar...*"

There are three general stances you could take on animal welfare:
  1. Animals suffering is equivalent to human suffering, so feed lots are equivalent to the WWII concentration camps (reflected in some ad campaigns).
  2. Animals are cute but tasty: let's try to make them reasonably happy as long as we can still eat bacon.
  3. Animals are here for human use. Some animals (mosquitoes come to mind) use us without the slightest regard for our well-being, so to hell with our looking after them.
While you can legitimately defend all of the above ethically, those who take stance #1 often feel entitled to, say, bomb the houses of animal researchers. While I acknowledge that you can't "prove" any value system is right or wrong, in general it's a good idea not to espouse any belief system which tells you it's OK to murder, for practical (if not ethical) reasons.

Even if you do believe murder is justified in a few circumstances, it's bad PR to kill your enemies. Homicide undermines your soft power like nothing else. I bet the above bombing did more to inoculate potential animal rights supporters than the combined forces of all the starched-shirted science-defending geeks ever to mumble through a justification of animal use at every cocktail party the world has seen.

Problem 2: Animal Rights Groups Lack Perspective

There are over 250 million egg-laying hens in the United States: almost one per human. There are likewise millions of dairy cows and livestock pigs. Many of these animals suffer for the sake of thrift: it's cheapest to pack animals into the smallest space that won't kill them.

Still, the three biggest animal rights causes I hear about are fur, pâté de foie gras, and medical research. A more quantitative statement: a Google search for "fur activism" turns up more hits than "laying activism."

What do fur, foie gras and medical research have in common? Not everybody comes home from their day quantifying drug toxicity to grab their mink stole on their way to a nice bistro: animal rights activists figure they can win more sympathy from people to counter less-common animal uses. They even turn poverty into a virtue: most of us can't afford blue fox coats while we're starting out, but PETA would have us believe we haven't yet bought fur because we instinctively know it's wrong. Moreover, a lot of rich people feel guilty about being rich (I can treat the root of this problem, incidentally. Please leave your contact info below.), making it easier to attack the morals of self-doubting millionaires.

In short, animal rights groups attack fringe animal usage since these are the issues they think they can "win." If I were them, and if I were really interested in animal welfare, I would recognize that many of us want to reduce animal suffering and would pay to do so (at least a little), so what we really need to do is have animal rights organizations set up a scoring system for farm animal welfare.

A lot of people would pay 20¢ more for eggs from hens which suffered 50% less pain. However, we have no way of really knowing how good each farm is. The time has past (or hasn't yet come) to paint each farmer Joe as a miniature Hitler: what I'd like to see are livestock comfort ratings on beef, milk, pork, chicken and eggs. Make them fair and standardized, and just watch if you don't find a significant minority of consumers support farms that would improve the lives of tens of millions of our fellow creatures.


Polarizing the debate on animal usage is a losing strategy: too many of us won't give up using animals in some form. Many animal activists use terrorist tactics to intimidate minority animal users. Regardless of whether you think animal rights should be equivalent to human rights, it's a better strategy to use market forces to relieve some suffering from mainstream animal uses; that's the easiest way to reduce animal suffering overall.

Chomping tenderly,


Reader poll: Who's a vegetarian, and why? How much extra would you spend on your daily food knowing your meat animals suffered less? How many of you would like the taste of happy meat better, if only through the placebo effect? Please leave me comments.

* Maybe animal rights activists think of the stuck fly's suffering, and so use vinegar deliberately to warn them from the trap?


islaverde said...

First, I agree that a major animal rights issue is agri-business/industrial-style farming.
As for the survey, I started eating more vegetables for my health. We do and will continue to pay 10-25% more for food from happier animals, e.g. "free-run" chicken eggs. Our household has been experimenting with the taste of food - that grown in a healthy environment compared with that produced in such accommodations as big feed lots. Sometimes we can taste the difference; sometimes, not. Nevertheless, we try to support family farm production rather than factory farms.


LeDopore said...

Thanks, IslaVerde.

It's good to know I'm not alone in preferring kind farm products. Are there any which are particularly tasty?